I met Karen Spradlin when I helped with some classes at a local dog training club. Karen was a volunteer also, and occasionally brought her labradoodle, Baxter. I looked forward to those Mondays early in my dog training career. I enjoyed the challenge of working with handlers who were having difficulty teaching their pets and I also benefitted from the positive, nurturing environment of Karen and head trainer Gloria White, CPDT-KA. Both became great friends, Gloria also becoming a mentor, whose encouragement also led to my studying for and passing he CPDT-KA certification.
A retired teacher, Karen is an instructor for Therapy Pets of Greater Cincinnati. Baxter is her second therapy dog, her first was a Rottweiler that died in 2012. He keeps her very busy as they spend many a days together brightening the spirits of those in need. I wanted to share some of her story.
Lisa: Please share how you came to have Baxter in your life.
Karen: I was deeply grieving after my other dog died, and had gone to so many shelters looking for another Rottweiler that would be a good therapy dog. I just could not find one. Two weeks after I got down on my knees and asked God to help, a friend called me to say they were taking me to get a labradoodle. He was five months old at the time and his owner was getting rid of him because his legs were too long and so she just kept him outside. He was brown because he was covered in dirt.
Lisa: Adopting him meant adopting his issues too.
Karen: It was very difficult in the beginning. Baxter was chewing everything and when I took him to a training class, he was barking and jumping and unmanageable. I was so discouraged. I told Gloria I couldn’t come back and I remember Gloria asking me if Baxter was going to be my forever dog. She asked if those behaviors are ones you want to live with, and if not, that I did not have a choice. We went to classes for a year and socialization was constant.
Lisa: Now Baxter does therapy work with you. That is quite a journey. What do you and Baxter do together?
Karen: Weekly we go to Clermont and Anderson Mercy Hospitals once a week, Batavia Elementary School on Thursdays for reading, and on Fridays to Forest Hills Care Center – a nursing home and rehabilitation center. We also visit Beckett Springs once a month in West Chester and once a month go to the Veterans Hospital downtown as well as do private presentations. It keeps us busy.
Lisa: Has there been any people who have been particularly impactful to you in your therapy work?
Karen: Yes, absolutely. As handlers, you don’t often know what the patient is thinking when you are visiting but sometimes you are fortunate to learn of how you have touched people and that makes this so special.
I remember one time when I was asked to give a presentation to the HOPE Community Center for Mental Wellness in Amelia, Ohio. One of ladies there weighed about 400 pounds. She raised her hand, and said, ‘you don’t remember me, do you?’ She told me she was in Clermont Mercy Hospital and that day, before we got there, she had told the nurse she just wanted to die. She hadn’t eaten or drank anything for three days, but Baxter and my visit made her feel good about herself. ‘You finished up by telling me this will get better and tomorrow will get better for you. After you left, you told me I had worth. I ate that day and started my pills that day,’ she shared. She told me I saved her life. I will never forget that.
Afterwards, Baxter was meeting people and there was another woman who was staring ahead into space. I brought Baxter to her and as he nudged her arm, she started petting him and said, ‘he is my sweet baby.’ Everyone stood up. When the day was over, a supervisor told me this was a really good day. They had never heard that woman’s voice before and she was at HOPE Center for three weeks.
It is those kinds of stories that make this time so special, and inspire me to continue doing this.
Lisa: You also just started a reading program at the Amelia Library.
Karen: Through Therapy Pets of Greater Cincinnati, I was asked to start a Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) program at the Amelia Library and we are just kicking it off. Yesterday we had four dogs there. Hundreds of children have read to therapy dogs through READ. It is a great way to encourage a love of learning in kids.
Lisa: Outside of your therapy dog work, what advice do you give others on life?
Karen: Advice I give to my grandkids and every student is to make a plan and work the plan. Life is going to happen no matter what; and it can be really good or be bad. When you get in a car for a road trip, what is the first thing you do? What if you don’t have directions? If you want your life to be successful, then you have to make the plan for what you want to be. It isn’t easy but you need to do it.